North Korea Said to Develop Sea-Based Ballistic Missile

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - North Korea is deploying a new missile that may be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to targets in United States territory, according to Jane's Defense Weekly.

The report comes shortly after an assessment by the South Korean military that its reclusive Stalinist neighbor - currently locked in a standoff with the U.S. over nuclear weapons development - was pressing ahead with missile development.

North Korea is believed to have 600 Scud missiles with a range of 600 km; and 100 Nodong missiles with a range of 1,300 km.

In 1998 the region was stunned when Pyongyang test-fired a multi-stage Taepodong-1 rocket over Japan. A Taepodong-2 capable of reaching Hawaii and Alaska reportedly is being developed.

But while the Taepodong variants are land-based, the Jane's Defense Weekly report raises the prospect of a North Korean ship- or submarine-launched ballistic missile for the first time.

An article in Wednesday's edition of the British military publication says "emerging reports indicate" that North Korea is in the process of deploying at least two new missile systems.

One is a land-based ballistic missile with an estimated range of 2,500-4,000 km; the second is a missile to be deployed on a ship or submarine platform, with a range of at least 2,500 km.

Jane's said the range for the land-based missile included all of East Asia, including U.S. military bases in Japan and Guam, as well as Hawaii.

The sea-based system was potentially even more threatening.

"It would fundamentally alter the missile threat posed by the DPRK and could finally provide its leadership with something that it has long sought to obtain - the ability to directly threaten the continental U.S.," Jane's said.

The systems appeared to be based on decommissioned Soviet R-27 ballistic missiles, it said, adding that during the 1990s the North Koreans were able to acquire designs, and possibly components, for the R-27.

It noted an incident in which missile technicians from a Russian firm were detained while trying to leave for North Korea in 1992. The firm they worked for, Makeyev Design Bureau in Chelyabinsk, specializes in ship- or submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBMs), and developed the R-27.

Although those technicians were stopped, Jane's said, "reports indicate that other groups of missile specialists successfully traveled to the DPRK [North Korea]."

Another incident is also said to be relevant to the North Korean development.

In 1993, the North Korean Navy signed a deal to buy 12 decommissioned Russian submarines, ostensibly for scrap metal.

Missiles and firing systems were excluded from the transaction, but "due to factors such as the time and expense of their removal, these boats retained significant elements of the missile launch system, including their launch tubes and stabilization subsystems."

Jane's said that technology provided crucial elements for the subsequent development of a ship- or submarine-mounted ballistic missile system.

The publication described the R-27 as "an excellent choice" on which the North Koreans to base their new system. The 40-year-old technology was well within Pyongyang's industrialization and skill levels.

"The R-27 also represents a proven system that the DPRK would be able to develop and deploy without having to conduct a significant test and evaluation program."

'Tests are essential'

Since the test-firing of the Taepodong-1 over Japan -- the rocket flew clear across the country and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean -- North Korea has kept to a self-declared moratorium on flight-testing longer-range missiles.

The retiring head of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, Lieut.-Gen. Ronald Kadish told Bloomberg in an interview published early last month that while North Korea had stuck to the moratorium it declared in 1999, it had not stopped developing missiles and had in fact "significantly" improved its ballistic missile capability.

According to the South Korean Defense Ministry, although the North has not flight-tested longer-range missiles, it has been carrying out tests on the new main engine for the Taepodong-2.

Gaurav Kampani, a senior research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, said Wednesday the engine tests had been picked up by satellite imagery.

But he said engine tests were a long way off actual flight-testing of a new missile.

"A missile is a very complex system," Kampani said. "You have all these substances that have to work together."

Without flight-testing missiles -- "not just once, but several times to ensure the reliability of the system" -- one could not be absolutely certain that the system worked.

Kampani pointed to India, where he said a "huge" and sophisticated infrastructure had been working on ballistic missiles for 20 years, "and they still haven't quite developed intermediate-range ballistic missile systems."

"So I can't believe the North Koreans would be able to deploy reliable intermediate-range systems without testing them."

Kampani also voiced skepticism about a submarine-based capability, saying North Korea did not yet possess submarines of the size required to be platforms for SLBMs.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow